Soho, the district in which the premises of Messrs Osborne and Garrett stood, consisted of a number of narrow thoroughfares, sometimes cobbled, sometimes asphalted, which wriggled their way between the traffic-streaming boulevards of Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street. Soho had an unsavoury reputation, but its notoriety was not entirely deserved. By no means were all its inhabitants racketeers and prostitutes. On the contrary, the majority were honest, hard working citizens.
True, it was a district of foreigners. Voluble Italians jostled harsh-accented Africans and gesticulating Frenchmen walked side by side with Hindu women in silken saris. The mixed population, which is today the norm in England, was then the exception. Thus, Soho in those pre-war days was to me a place alive with romance.
In Soho one could spend an hour in a chop suey joint or an Indian restaurant, there to partake of the many and varied delicacies of the east. Or one could patronise a certain French rendezvous in Greek Street where soupe a l’oignon, escargots farcis, and cuisses de grenouille were de rigueur on the menu. Or if one wished to hob-nob with the dark sons of Spain and speak a bit of “Castellano” to the waiter, one could go to “The Majorca” at the Regent Street end of Brewer Street. These spots were typical of the marvellous variety of foods and languages.
But it was at night that Soho really came into its own. Then, when the offices were empty, when the grind of the working day was over and people gave themselves up to pleasure, the thunder of the west end traffic could be heard like a muted drum roll in the quieter back streets. Glaring on-and-off neon advertisements would give spasmodic illumination to murky lanes, and as one walked and felt the cool breeze on one’s face, one must have been dull indeed not to have revelled in it all. We were young, the world was full of romance and opportunity, and it belonged to us.
Look! Over there is Piccadilly Circus, brilliant hub of the universe, and beyond lies the black, shimmering River Thames. How beautiful it all is!
Even the pornography shops didn’t look so dingy when night overtook the West End. And the heavily painted prostitutes who brushed past you with an overpowering whiff of perfume and a murmured “Hello darling” seemed much more glamorous than they would have been if you had had the nerve to accept their invitation and follow them to some squalid back room.
Those days at “Ogee’s” were, on the whole, happy ones. I was worked hard and earned every penny of my meagre salary. But after the grind of Thursday, taking small advertisements over a scratchy old-fashioned telephone in the morning (the “Journal” ran several pages of “smalls”, and there was always a rush before we went to press) and the foot wearying afternoon journeys when I carried proofs, hot from Oldham’s Press, round to the larger advertisers, I could walk home with my colleagues through the neon-lit streets, puffing at a cigarette, talking of the day’s work, and enjoying the marvellous feeling of being on a London paper, however insignificant it might be. Those men and women in evening dress whose limousines carried them swiftly to some expensive restaurant might feel pretty pleased with themselves, but I knew something they did not. I knew what was going to be in tomorrow’s “Hairdressers Journal”.
The “Journal” offices were at the back of Ogee’s big store fronting Greek Street. We reached them by entering a small door in an insignificant side street and climbing a short staircase. One then found oneself in a square space enclosed by walls on two sides, a counter on a third, and fenced off from the main office on the fourth side by a frosted glass partition. This partition annoyed us intensely, because we always had to guess whether anybody had climbed the short flight of steps and wanted serving. Invariably we used to get up and go round to the counter when nobody was there, because we had heard a board creak. When someone was in fact there, we often failed to realise it, and were warned only by an impatient shuffling of feet, a testy cough, or a peremptory tap on the glass itself. I disliked the early part of the week most during those “Journal” days.
Apart from Monday morning reluctance, my job in the early part of the week was to sort out the replies that had been sent in to box office numbers and redirect them to advertisers’ addresses, of which we kept a weekly list. Since the “Journal” officially appeared on Saturday, every post on Monday brought piles of letters to my desk, and I never had a moment’s peace.
I had to leave home at about half past six in the morning to get to work on time. I would generally knock off at about six in the evening. You were expected to bundy on a few minutes before time and not leave before all jobs were finished. Any involuntary overtime was not paid for, and of course, as was general in those days, Saturday mornings were worked. On Saturdays we got away at about one o’clock.
On weekdays we had a tea break at four thirty in the afternoon. Well, it was not really a break, because one was expected to go on working. But I remember with pleasure the tea and biscuits that motherly, white-coated Jessie, smiling through her rimless glasses, used to fetch round on a trolley. We all needed tea, especially on Mondays, when the licking of innumerable envelopes reduced me to a state of near dehydration.
I remember, too, the pulsating, busy basement, the “guts” of the building with its endless belts carrying packages hither and yon. This was the section from which parcels were dispatched all over the world. Incredible that these packages would journey in a few weeks to places which I should probably never see – to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.
I used to go to a cafe in Dean Street for my lunch. This consisted of two ham rolls (no butter) and a cup of tea. The customers were all men, and the talk was rough. The subject was always normal – that is to say, women and booze in that order. According to the conversationalists the women were always loose and the booze was always potent. If there were any “four-letter words” I didn’t know already, I was rapidly introduced to them.
The proprietor was a deft, cheerful, watery-eyed, watery-nosed individual in his middle thirties called Len. I think we all went there because the “caff” was the cheapest eating-place in Soho. Later, when the war came, a bomb hit Len’s Cafe and completely destroyed it, but by that time I had moved on elsewhere.
I was attending evening classes during this period, studying shorthand, typewriting, English and French, in the hope of one day becoming a real journalist, and not just an advertisement copy-boy and stamp licker. Three evenings a week I used to climb the brick-enclosed staircase of the local evening institute, which was a children’s school during the day and had certainly not been designed to accommodate adults. The ceilings were low, the coat hangers and lavatories needed raising a couple of feet, and we had to squeeze into the desks which children used during the day and sprawl with our feet along the gangways. However, we did not worry greatly about the surroundings. The object was to try to learn something to help us on our way.
After the fashion of the time the whole school was lit by gas lamps, which gave off a faintly yellowish light. It was here that I met my first girl friend, Rita, although I must confess that our friendship was of a very short duration.
Rita was a blue-eyed black-haired beauty, precocious for her seventeen years. Her lips were soft, cherry coloured and moist. She had a pair of shapely silk-stockinged legs that Michelangelo might have sculpted. She was acknowledged by the boys to be the best “looker” in the class, and whenever she came in, all eyes were turned in her direction, and a dozen young masculine hearts fluttered in silent worship. I caught her up in the street one night when the classes had finished.
“Good evening. Do you mind if I walk home with you?”
“Why, no” she said. “Of course not”.
Her voice expressed such pleasure at the prospect of my company that my heart swelled in ecstasy. She was definitely the girl most likely to succeed. There was a dead silence for some yards. I had run out of steam and didn’t know what else to say. But Rita did.
“Do you like shorthand?”
“Why, yes,” I said. “Do you?”
“Yes. Very much. I like Miss Jolly.” The shorthand class was taught by a tall, bespectacled and persistently cheerful woman whose name was appropriately Jolly.
“Yes. I Iike her too.”
“Do you like typewriting?” asked Rita.
“Yes. Do you?”
“Do you like English?”
What a wonderful conversation we were having. We seemed to agree on everything. My head in a whirl, I walked Rita to her door. I asked if I might see her home the following night. She said I might. I debated whether to kiss her, but thought it might be a bit soon, and we parted with a formal handshake. The following evening I invited her to come to the pictures with me, and she accepted, but she did not keep the appointment. The next time we were at evening classes, a note was passed to me by one of her girl friends.
Rita apologised for not meeting me and regretted that she could not come out with me again. I was bewildered, and although she had left rather hurriedly at the end of the session, I caught up with her and demanded an explanation.
She seemed rather embarrassed.
“Well, you see, my mother saw us at the gate the other night and she said that since you are a Christian boy and I’m a Jewish girl it wouldn’t be right for me to go out with you.”
I was stunned and hurt. It was my first chagrin d’amour. The pleasure of love, the old song says, lasts only a moment. But the pain of love lasts for a lifetime. Well, it certainly took me several weeks to soothe my upset pride.
The lesson was this, that I had always automatically assumed that one was fortunate to be a white Anglo Saxon Protestant. Yet here was somebody telling me that it was better to be a Jew, and I was simply not good enough for Rita because I was a goy. There was no way that Rita’s parents were going to stand by and see her run the risk of becoming a shicksa – a proselyte – an abomination. I understood the point. Later, when I began to read widely about Judaism, I understood it better.